IRVINE — In the race for the presidency, getting the nomination is not a win in itself, it's only a ticket to play "Big Casino." Every serious candidate and campaign--the kind that wants to win in November, not just send messages--needs to bear that in mind and act accordingly. Almost anything said or done to nail down that endorsement in January can come back to bite you in the fall.
The reason for caution also rests on an old truth: The people Democrats need most in the nominating process, the activist left, resemble only in citizenship that great bulk of moderate voters needed in November. Picture the American political landscape as a football field. Let all voters assemble on whichever yard line they feel most comfortable and you will be surprised how many position themselves between the 30-yard lines, the great moderate center.
Traditionally, Democratic candidates have performed a lot of running plays between the left 30-yard line and the back of the end zone--not by choice but by necessity. That's where the activists and their causes live. They are the ones who most readily stuff envelopes, knock on doors and share their mailing lists of the committed like-minded.
You go after them because you need them, but also remember they need you--or someone like you--to advance their causes. You get them by speaking the words of their cause, letting them know you are with them in thought if not in deed.
When "committing," remember to leave yourself wiggle room. Sometimes it's hard in the enthusiasm of the moment to apply restraint--then at least remember video tape and that your opponent has a video cassette recorder.
This year's Democrats have been restrained in their promises--at least the ones that cost money. Candidates even take each other to task for making promises without a price tag. This may be the ultimate example of Ronald Reagan's economic realities taking hold in that unlikeliest of places--a Democratic nomination fight.
Jesse Jackson has been a model of restraint, fiscal and otherwise. Gone is the fiery rhetoric, the joint appearances with Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan and the near handout promises to the faithful. Yet Jackson, by temperament and background, must be the hot candidate on the left. Anchoring himself much closer to the center than in 1984 forces the others to "dress right" from Jackson. Indeed, former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt has positioned himself to the right of all on economic issues. He wants needs tests for well-off recipients of Social Security and other entitlement programs--unthinkable in earlier Democratic campaigns.
Leaving aside economic issues, the seven supplicants are searching for something to distinguish themselves from the pack. In May, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri took time from his trade battles to warn of yet another danger to America, claiming that his new bill, "holds those who would tamper with an American heritage to a higher standard than a mere dollar sign. We must insist on nothing less." Grand words, Churchillian in tone, but what was this threat to the nation or at least the south side of St. Louis? The colorization of old black-and-white motion picture films. Whether it was a genuine desire to keep films in their original black-and-white or the opportunity to co-star with Woody Allen at a press conference is a question for the voters, but he did get on the network news.
Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee left the pack over a defense issue. He refused to rule out, unilaterally, test flights of unarmed missiles. Politically this was no great shift, equivalent to an outfielder shading a bit from straight-away left to left-center, but it was effective in distinguishing Gore, particularly in the South, and nobody ever hurt himself running for the center in politics.
Not having to do much to get noticed is the ideal position to be in. The best example this year has been Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis who has been able to run as the guy in charge of a state enjoying recognizable economic prosperity. Whether he had anything to do with it is irrelevant--it's on his watch and that says enough. This has allowed him the luxury of notice without having to say anything that can hurt him later.
All managers and coaches acknowledge that you play the general election game in the center of the field. The sooner you wrap up a nomination and head for the 50-yard line the better, and the less primary baggage you carry. But you got to get nominated first.